When we first came to Normandy, our nearest neighbour was Mme Odette Laforet. She was over 70, and well liked and respected in the village, with many people calling in to see her. I would look in on her when passing, to see if she needed bread or anything from the village. One morning there were four or five men sitting around her table, drinking coffee and calvados, and I stopped to join them for a while.
I asked one of the men, a morose chap with a big moustache, in his thirties, what he did for a living, to which he replied 'chomage' – unemployed. He'd been looking for work for a while, without much luck.
A few months later, we had arrived in the nearby town, from an overnight ferry, and had stopped to get breakfast in a cafe. As I crossed the road from parking the car, I heard someone call my name - 'Monsieur Paul'. I turned, and it was the same chap, Gaston, that I had met chez la mere Laforet. He told me he now had a job, in St Lo, and that one friend drove him from the village to the town, and another from there to the place in St Lo where they both worked. He was much more cheerful, and very pleased with his job.
The following summer, I was at a grand annual fete – la Fete Retro at St Aubin des Bois – which is a splendid event with farm work through the centuries, from hand reaping with sickles, through horse drawn machines, to tractors. They even have a field of corn which is harvested by the range of techniques, the corn threshed, milled and then baked during the day, and the field then ploughed by ox drawn ploughs. Someone said Bonjour, and again it was Gaston, this time smartly dressed, and looking very confident. He told me that he had been elected mayor of our commune, and clearly was someone to be reckoned with. So a very radical transformation over less than a couple of years.
The mayor of a French commune, of which there are over 20,000, are very powerful, even if the commune is, like ours, only a few hundred people. There are always Mairies, little town halls, or Hotels de Ville in larger towns, they all have a budget taken from the local taxes, and they are consulted on everything. If you need permission to build, have a problem with other people, or traffic or anything else, the first stop is the mayor.
Every politician in France is normally also the mayor of their home town, whether they are a minister or a member of the Senate, and whether their home is a city like Rouen or a village like ours. The public view is that if someone cannot get elected as mayor by the people who know him or her best, they should not be voted for for a higher office. Tends to create more connected politicians that the British system, where the majority of MPs would never get elected to anything by those who actually know them personally.